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Vaccinating Students Under 16: What Educators Need to Know

Vaccinating students
(Image credit: Jeyaratnam Caniceus from Pixabay)

Vaccinating students younger than 16 is now recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

On Wednesday, May 12, the CDC issued a new recommendation that 12- to 15-year-olds use Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine. The announcement came two days after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration extended its emergency-use authorization for the Pfizer vaccine in this age group, and opens the door for many more students to be vaccinated. 

Here’s what educators need to know: 

What Does The CDC Say About Student Vaccination in This Age Group?  

“Today, I adopted CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices’ (ACIP) recommendation that endorsed the safety and effectiveness of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine and its use in 12- through 15-year-old adolescents,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky in a statement. “CDC now recommends that this vaccine be used among this population, and providers may begin vaccinating them right away.” 

Walensky did not mention students or schools specifically in the statement, but did discuss the unique considerations around this age group. 

“Though most children with COVID-19 have mild or no symptoms, some children can get severely ill and require hospitalization,” she said. “There have also been rare, tragic cases of children dying from COVID-19 and its effects, including multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, or MIS-C.” 

She added, “For vaccination to do its job, we must do our critical part. That means vaccinating as many people as possible who are eligible.” 

Will Students Get Vaccinated?  

The new CDC recommendation opens up vaccination to approximately 17 million adolescents. But how many within this age group will get vaccinated is not known. 

“Getting adolescents vaccinated means their faster return to social activities and can provide parents and caregivers peace of mind knowing their family is protected,” Walensky said. “Some parents have already made plans for their adolescents to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Understandably, some parents want more information before their children receive a vaccine. I encourage parents with questions to talk to your child’s healthcare provider or your family doctor to learn more about the vaccine.” 

Will Vaccines Be Mandated at Schools 

Many universities are requiring students to obtain a coronavirus vaccine to attend in-person classes this year. School districts, however, seem unlikely to follow suit, at least for now. For instance, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced recently that New York’s public universities will be requiring vaccines but he will not be pursuing a similar policy with public schools. 

“A state cannot mandate a vaccine that is authorized by emergency use,” Cuomo said a day before the CDC released its recommendation. “It has to receive a full federal approval first.”

Pfizer recently applied for full authorization for its vaccine from the FDA, but so far only for those over 16.

What Research Led to This And What About Younger Students? 

The new FDA authorization and CDC recommendation is based upon a trial of 2,260 adolescents aged 12 to 15. In the group who received the placebo, there were 18 cases of COVID-19, versus zero cases in the group who received the vaccine. 

Both Pfizer and Moderna have begun trials of children 6 months to 11 years of age, but results won’t be available until September at the earliest.

Meanwhile, during a press conference Wednesday, President Joe Biden called the updated CDC recommendation for 12- to 15-year-olds “One more giant step in our fight against the pandemic.” He added, “I encourage each of them and their parents to get their vaccination shots right away.” 

Erik Ofgang is a journalist, author and educator who writes about education, health, science, food, and travel. He has taught journalism at Quinnipiac University, Mercy College, and Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program.